Thursday, February 25, 2016

Taking a break--and sharing some sweetness

I'm taking a couple weeks off, so you won't see posts here for a bit.  I just received the almost-final draft of my upcoming book.  I need to re-read every word (again!) and make sure it's just how I want it.  So my early-morning writing time will be spent squinting at my laptop, adjusting words and commas and making little tweaks to the manuscript.  I like the work, but I admit I'll be glad to be out on the other side of it.

Before I go, though, I just have to remark again about how delightful it is to have a job where I'm surrounded by little people.  A couple funny things have happened in the past couple days that I just have to tell someone about.


Just yesterday, a kindergarten teacher told me that she'd been running late that morning, so she wore her glasses instead of her usual contacts.  A student skipped in the room, saw her, and stopped dead-still.  The little girl crinkled her brow.  "Mrs. Smith—?

"Yes, Livie?" the teacher asked.

Livie wagged her finger, scold-style.  "Do you have glasses because you sat too close to the video game screen?"

She's heard that before at home, I presume.  A lot.


A guidance counselor was trying to work through a problem with a student who does not want to talk about it.  At one point in the conversation, she just stopped.  Her eyes were big and she had a faux-stunned look on her face.  "What is it?" the counselor asked.

The student shook her head sadly.  "I'm sorry to say... "  She lets out a deep, apologetic sigh.  "...My tongue just fell asleep.  I can't talk anymore."

Good try.  I might use that one myself.


A teacher named Mrs. Ardelea was renamed by her kindergarteners as "Miss Awesome."  As in, "Hey, Miss Awesome!  Have a great day, Miss Awesome!  You're so pretty, Miss Awesome!"

Enough said.


And, finally, a second grader was sent to the office today for hitting another student.  I asked him what had happened, but—as is typical when asking a 7-year-old about such things—he couldn't reallllllllly remember.  I asked him to write it down.  This was his explanation. 

For those not used to interpreting the writing of second graders—not just reading, mind you, but interpreting—this is what he is telling me: 
I was playing with {another student} at the time.  I don't know exactly where I touched her... but... I might have.  It's because she's been mean to me, like, all the time.  But I never really had a physical reaction before.  
P.S. I have a sympathetic ear.

I love how he ended his explanation by reminding me that he's a sympathetic kid.  He was clearly hoping I'd be a little lenient as a result; after all, who could really be tough on a kid who's got a sympathetic ear? 

Smiles until next time!  I'll be back soon!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Do You Miss the Kids?

I get this question a lot, and I never really know how to answer.  It leaves me a bit dumbfounded, actually. 

“Since you left teaching for the principalship, do you miss the kids?” I am asked.

I'll say, “What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know.  Like, do you miss having a class?  Your own class?  Your own kids?”

No.  Absolutely not.

Because, seriously, I have my own kids.  Not the same kids, every day, like I did when I was a teacher.  Instead, I have more than ever—almost 700, in fact.  Lots and lots of kids that I get to see whenever I want.  Or whenever they want.  And even, sometimes, in the case of a discipline issue, when neither of us wants.

Sure, it's different than when I had a classroom and a desk and a roster with my name on it.  But it's not bad-different. Not for me, anyway.

Of course there are a lot of things about school leadership that don't involve direct interaction with kids—there's paperwork, scheduling, evaluations, facilities, teacher support, parent and community involvement, and so on.  All of those things really do have a direct impact on students and their learning, which is why I value them a whole, whole lot. 

But there's direct kid time, too.  From greeting kids in the morning as they get off the bus, to visiting classrooms, to one-on-one conversations with students, I get to see a lot of them through each day and over the course of a school year.  

My contact with them covers a wildly-wide spectrum, mind you.  Sometimes I am celebrating with a giddy child who has learned to read a Level-1 book and has come to my office to read it to me.  Sometimes I am dolling out a consequence to a sobbing, remorseful, apologetic student who "accidentally" stole a handful of cookies from the cafeteria.  I may be calming a still-very-angry  student who punched an opponent during a heated football game on the playground.  The pendulum swings wildly, and I swing with it.  From happy to heated, from funny to sad, I am constantly given the opportunity to ride along with students during their best and worst moments.

Here's the thing:  Even though I'm no longer a teacher, I still feel like I make a big impact on kids.  When I talk with them—in passing, or in a deep conversation in my office—I work hard to connect with them and teach them something.  Or be open to learning as they teach me something—which, by the way, happens more frequently than not. 

So, no.  Leaving teaching to be a principal didn't make me miss kids at all... because they are still all around, surrounding me, and constantly—constantly!—reminding me why I'm here.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Defensiveness Part 2: "Okay."

I wrote a couple days ago about feeling defensive and, consequently, irrational.

What about when we are not feeling defensive... but we are working with someone who is?

It happens to leaders frequently, simply because of what leadership is.  By being in a position in which we potentially have the power to damage others—emotionally, financially, or otherwise—we can find ourselves at the receiving end of defensiveness.  In my work as a principal, it's happened to me a lot.  I have experienced it when I am talking with a teacher about ways to stretch and grow, or discussing a particular incident in the classroom.  It has happened when I am talking with a parent about an issue at home that has begun creeping into the child's school day.  And it has happened when a student has been sent to my office for a poor decision, and I have to figure out what happened and doll out consequences for the behavior.

Defensiveness announces its arrival with crossed arms, shaky voices, and teary eyes.  There is an expression of distrust and suspicion; people get wary, cautious, and work hard to justify themselves.  They can even grow aggressive and overly protective of themselves or others.

So how to respond?

My friend Melissa knows.  I have learned a lot about how to handle defensiveness in others by watching her.

Because of her previous work as a special education teacher and supervisor, Melissa has overseen hundreds of special education teachers, students, and their families.  In that role, she would encounter countless tricky and difficult scenarios.  It was her job to repair damage that had been caused by a contentious problem.   Emotions would be running high; sides would have been chosen; there would seem to be no feasible solution in sight.  Defensiveness was in full swing.

And Melissa could handle those situations beautifully.  With her simple use of one single word—the word "Okay"— she could alleviate all of the angst in the room and move people toward a solution.

It wasn't just "Okay," though, which could be taken as a blasé dismissal.  Hers was an acknowledging "Okay."  A gentle, understanding acceptance; a legitimizing of feelings.

Here is what would happen:  Everyone would sit around the table and Melissa would hone in on the person with the biggest problem.  "Tell us what you're thinking or feeling," she would say.  And the person would talk as defensive people do:  quickly, with anger or frustration, words tumbling over one another.  Sometimes they didn't make much sense.  They were often irrational, as discussed in my earlier conversation about defensiveness.  But even so, when finished, Melissa would smile her calming, beautiful smile.  "Okay," she'd say, a loving lilt to her voice, the kind of lilt that said, Really, it's going to be okay.  It's okay that you feel that way; it's okay that you are upset; it's okay because we're all here with you, in this problem, and we're all going to work to understand how you feel and find a solution.

And the temperature in the room would go down.  Just like that.  Melissa would then invite others to share their perspectives and begin moving toward a solution.  It worked every single time.

She was like the Defensiveness Whisperer.

I try to emulate Melissa's approach when working with defensive people.  Like she does, I make sure I listen really carefully and then acknowledge and accept the stance of the other person, even if it seems irrational to me.  I reassure them with an "Okay," so they know it's fine for them to feel as they do and that we're going to come to an acceptable solution for all.

And we will.  In the end, we will move past defensiveness— and toward a place that's all okay.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Defensiveness Part 1: Moving Away from Irrationality

Not long ago, I completed a training in which I heard an explanation of "defensiveness" that was new to me.  It made a whole lot of sense:  Defensiveness is the first step toward irrational thinking.

Hmmm.  The first step toward irrational thinking.

That's really, really true for me.

When I was first married, and my husband and I were bungling along doing the new-couple dance of figuring out how conflict would be handled in our relationship, arguments often escalated because I would grow very, very defensive—and it would happen very, very quickly.  When defensive, it wasn't long until I would be completely, thoroughly irrational.

I hate feeling irrational.  When it happens—rarely these days, thankfully—I seem to eerily divide myself into two people:  the one who's feeling irrational, and the one who is watching the show.   The "me" that is watching knows, in the deep, dark place where truth really lies, that I'm being ridiculous and making no sense.  But it's impossible to pull out of irrationality without physically removing from the situation and taking time to calm down.

But I have learned—slowly, and certainly not easily—to avoid defensiveness at all costs.  In personal relationships and in my work, I have taught myself to develop the skill of detecting defensiveness the instant it creeps up.  You're feeling defensive, I say to myself, specifically naming it and acknowledging that it is there.  Then, I make conscious efforts to pull back from defensiveness by giving myself the alternative:  If you stay defensive, you will soon be in a place of irrationality.  Which doesn't work for you.  Usually, this self-lecture allows me to stay logical and open-minded.  I force myself to stop, breathe, and take a break—often literally walking away for a few moments until I'm ready to move on.

Here's the thing:  Defensiveness is something that is always going to be there.  It has value, of course, which is why it's a thing.  It shows up to make us hyper-aware of a threat; it puts us in a place to protect ourselves from something dangerous.  Which can be a really good thing.  But I've learned that I'm a person prone to quick defensiveness, so I have to consciously manage it.  Which takes work.  I have to keep practicing it, just like I practice yoga and practice writing.  I revisit it often and with full-on focus.  It has made me a better leader—and, no doubt, a better spouse and mother and friend.

I've also learned a lot about how to manage defensiveness in others.  Come back on Monday for some ideas!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Social Media and Depression

Ok.  So.

University of Houston social-psychology researcher Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers studies the psychological effects of Facebook. 

Thank goodness someone is doing that work.  Right?  Because it's a big thing, this social-media stuff.  It's a lot of emotional stuff to manage.  And it requires a deep understanding of what social media really is:  for many people, it's a self-branding tool.  People only share the very best, brightest parts of their lives.  They don't talk about the crap.

So using it for enjoyment, without crossing over into jealousy or depression, requires loads of self-reflection— and the ability to be honest and true.  To ourselves.  

Which is hard to do.  Even as I, myself, engage fully in social media, its big-ness overcomes me sometimes.  Especially when I think about young people, who probably don't have the skills to manage the crap that comes along with the good parts—and there are good parts— of connecting with other people through social media.

Turns out there is a reason to worry.

To summarize:  As part of her work, Nguyen Steers co-authored a study that revealed “the longer people spend on Facebook, the more likely they are to experience depressive symptoms.” They also become more jealous, because Facebook practically forces you to compare yourself to “idealized versions of your friends.”  (Real Simple, August 2015). 

Yeah.  No kidding.  Oftentimes, as I'm perusing Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I'm flabbergasted with the awesomeness of everyone else I know.  These people!  The things they do!  Their perfectness!  They go on fantastic vacations, they attend amazing parties, they bend into impossible yoga poses, and they accomplish incredible things.  While I'm sitting on the couch.  Scrolling.  

And these thoughts are from me—a purported "grown up."  With effort, I can work my way out of feeling pathetic in comparison to my online friends.  But what about young people?  My own kids?  Or the students who come into my school each day?  Can they?

I don't know.  

I hang on to the possibility that they will surprise us all; maybe growing up with social media as an ever-present thing will create some emotional calluses.  Or maybe they'll have a better grasp of the impossibility that everyone else is so happy and perfect.  Maybe they'll handle it all just fine.  Maybe it won't be a thing.  I really, really hope so.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dr. Reynolds

Kim Reynolds is a Reading Recovery teacher.  An important job, that one:  Reading Recovery teachers work with first graders who tussle with the whole learning-to-read thing.   She’s on the front lines of catching reading trouble before it becomes a lifelong problem. 

Kim’s pretty awesome.  It’s fun to watch her with kids; she has a kind of magic.  She’s got a lovely voice and a sweeping smile; her students gaze at her in love and awe when they work together.  They get to see her every day for a half hour—time they spend focused on fiddling around around with letters and words and stories.  Over time, a transformation occurs.  Words and spellings begin to make sense.  Sentences connect.  Stories become understandable.   Confidence begins to build.  The grins change from tentative to triumphant.  Reading gets easier.  It turns into fun.

It’s pretty remarkable to watch.  It's important work.  Some of the most important work, if you ask me.

The kids must think so, too.  Last week, Kim was packing up after a session with one of her students.  She noticed the little girl looking intently at Kim’s stack of file folders. 

“Are those all your patients, Mrs. Reynolds?” she asked.

Kim smiled. 
How to answer?

“I’m not a doctor, but yes, you could say that those are my patients,” Kim answered. 

I’m glad she answered that way.  In a lot of ways, teachers guide the growth of a child’s mind just like a doctor guides the growth of the body.   And it makes me happy that kids might understand this. 

Go forth, Dr. Reynolds.   

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Yeah, so, a few weeks ago I posted about how it’s important to be nice.

And that very day, I wasn’t.  I was nasty.    

I’m mad at myself, especially because there is no excuse for it.

The background:  my school's parking lot borders several well-loved local restaurants, so it’s a staff/parent parking lot by day, and we allow a valet company to use it for restaurant parking by night.  Most days, the arrangement works beautifully.  

But on this particular night, I needed to go back to school for an event.  I was in a foul mood:  I was running late, it was freezing cold (like, zero) and reallllllllly windy; my children were fighting in the back of the minivan, I was hungry, and my husband wasn’t answering his phone to tell me when he was coming to take over with the kids.  So I was pretty grumpy.  And my fuse was short.   

I pulled into the lot, and sure enough, there he was.  A valet—a dark figure, bundled in his hat and gloves, no older than 20 or so—approached.  I felt my face get warm.  Leave me alone, I silently implored.  Go away.  Walk away.

He tapped on my window.  “This is valet parking,” he said.

“I know.  But I work here.”  I tilted my head toward the school.

“We need that parking spot, though,” he said.  “Us valets?  We use this lot.  The whole thing.” 

I tried to stop myself, but it seemed to just tumble out.  “Listen.  I work at this building and I am parking here and by the way we just loan you this lot it is not yours and I am not moving my car and I will be out in an hour or two and then you can have the spot back.”   

Instantly, I regretted opening my mouth. 

He slunk away—I can only imagine the names he was calling me inside his head—and I stomped toward the school doors.  But I spent the rest of the evening feeling like a tool.  All I’d needed to do was take a deep breath, gently explain myself, acknowledge his perspective, and nicely ask for his understanding.  That’s it.  Because, as the leader, it’s just not okay for me to be nasty.  It’s not good for my school, it’s not good for my community, and besides, it makes me feel rotten.

I’ll do better next time.  And in the meantime, I’m going to take some donuts to the group of valets—and make sure I offer an apology to the poor kid who was on the wrong end of my bad mood.   

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...